a fantastical idea. Imagine a public transport network that
criss-crosses the sky on a monorail-like network, only that you have a
personal vehicle, you don’t have a driver, and you don’t have to
drive. It gets you straight to your destination without stopping.
After you get off, it just goes back to the network. Sounds like
science fiction? Guess again. SkyTran, a California company, is
actually working on making this a reality!
A SkyTran pod holds 1 to 2 persons,
and uses magnetic levitation, or maglev, to suspend the pod from a
criss-crossing network. Maglev is a proven technology that today powers
Japanese bullet trains (shinkansen). To visualize this aerial network
of levitating personal public vehicles, imagine the airport monorail,
only multi-levels – with north-south separate from east-west to avoid
collision – and individual cars hanging from it.
To board, first purchase a ticket, then get on a platform and wait for the next car to come along. When you get in, all you have to do is tell it where you want to go. Next, sit back, relax, read a book or look out the window at the passing scenery while the pod zooms by at 100mph to your final destination. When you get off, the pod simply re-enters the network, and services the next person at that station or one nearby. Magical indeed. I am excited by this very unique, very personalized, very convenient public transport model.
When I first heard of this today at a NASA Ames conference, I was blown away by the idea, and the sustainability business case. According to SkyTran, this is today’s “off-the-shelf” technology. The current challenge is integration. According to the company, the vision is purposefully counter-intuitive to common public transport solution – which is to build large heavy vehicles capable of transporting many people at once. A personal pod enables those who are uncomfortable giving up the convenience and privacy of a private car to get on the public transit network. Currently the pod only fits 2 people because when the pod is heavier, a stronger magnet increases not linearly, but exponentially in price. Still, since on average, cars have 1.2 passenger, theoretically this could meet the needs of many.
This idea of a driveless Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) is not new. Back in the 70s, West Virginia University at Morgantown, West Virginia started running a fleet of 8-seater cars on elevated railways connecting their campuses. The system is still running today, providing a low-maintenance electric-based public transportation for the university.
An example of a second generation system is the ULTra PRT, which will be piloted at Heathrow Airport this year. This wheel-based system is battery-driven and runs around 25 mph. This network of eighteen 4-seater cabs will shuttle passengers from the terminals to the parking lots starting March 2008. I don’t quite understand how a small capacity pod is useful in an airport setting, but perhaps it makes sense as a pilot location due to high usage.
According to Unimodal, a partner of SkyTran, its technology is the next generation, because of the maglev technology, a lighter cab, and the capability to go at higher speed (150mph). To see animated rendering of the SkyTran technology in the context of LA traffic, take a look at this brief interview on CBS Eyewitness News.
Marn-Yee Lee is pursuing an MBA in Sustainability at the Presidio
School of Management in San Francisco. After spending a decade in I.T.
and on Wall Street, she is now pursuing her passion for the
environment. She sees business as a partner for creating innovative
solutions to pressing environmental issues. In her spare time, she
writes a blog to inspire others to consider the impact of their daily
lives on the environment at busythinking.blogspot.com.
Flickr photo by ~dabbler~ (formerly jowo)